NEW YORK -- Whether the uniform said Cleveland or Miami, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been united by this: An unbridled disdain for LeBron James. In Boston, Pierce and Garnett hated James' arrogance, hated his constant complaining to officials, hated how he would collapse to the court at the slightest contact. "That m**********r never shuts up," Garnett, according to league sources, would grumble, and Pierce would agree. Time has past, uniforms have changed, but as Pierce walked out onto the Barclays Center floor on Friday, planting himself at center court, refusing to look in James' direction, this much was clear: They brought those hard feelings to Brooklyn with them.
This is what Nets GM Billy King wanted when he shipped three first round picks to Boston for Pierce and Garnett, when he cut out the heart and soul of the Celtics roster and surgically implanted it onto his own. King fumed during last season's playoffs, when a battered Bulls team beat the Nets in Game 7 with little more than heart and hustle. King pooled his resources, brokered a deal with Boston for Pierce, used Pierce to convince Garnett to accept a trade to Brooklyn and built a team not just with the personnel to compete for a title, but the mental toughness, too.
And there it was, on display in Brooklyn on Friday, an unquantifiable presence that helped the Nets squeeze out a 101-100 win. There was no panic in Brooklyn's eyes as a lead that was as large as 16 points started to slip away, as James and Dwyane Wade started to knock down shots in the fourth quarter. Not this time, not this year. Not with the 37-year-old Garnett careening into the stands after a loose ball, not with Pierce snarling at Mario Chalmers that he was going to knock down a pair of free throws with seven seconds left -- and then doing exactly that.
"We've got some championship-caliber guys who have brought a great attitude here to Brooklyn," Joe Johnson said. "We're just feeding off of it."
Said Garnett, "We wanted it a little more."
There is so much potential in this Nets team, so many reasons for optimism. From the five All-Stars in the starting lineup, to two of the NBA's elite sixth men (Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko) on the bench, to the big bodies of Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans, Brooklyn is loaded. First year coach Jason Kidd -- who will make his regular season debut on the sidelines on Sunday after sitting out the first two games serving a suspension for an offseason DWI incident -- has mandated more ball movement, and when the Nets comply it often leads to positive results. So concerned was Miami about Pierce (19 points) that they frequently left Johnson (19 points) alone for open looks. With room to operate on the inside, Blatche (nine points) and Brook Lopez (13 points) took advantage.
From the first practice, Pierce and Garnett have set a new tone. There will be no plays off, no excuses for not leaving it all out on the floor. When Kidd called Doc Rivers to ask about coaching Pierce and Garnett in the offseason, Rivers summed them up to Kidd succinctly: They both have a dying desire to win.
Deron Williams didn't know what to expect from Garnett. Like most opponents, Williams' relationship with Garnett was casual, distant, with any real conversations reserved for All-Star games. When Williams sent Garnett text messages on draft night urging KG to accept a trade to Brooklyn, Garnett didn't respond with much. Like so many others, Williams thought Garnett's trademark intensity was exaggerated -- part real, part show. It took one practice for Williams to realize his mistake.
"The guy you see out there on the floor talking, slapping the floor, doing all that stuff," Williams said, "that's exactly who KG is in practice."
There's a perception that Pierce didn't want to leave Boston, one born during an introductory press conference where an emotional Pierce looked overwhelmed by the moment. But Pierce knew for weeks that his time in Boston was at an end. He was prepared for a new beginning. He was a Celtic, will always be a Celtic, but with Boston rebuilding, Pierce knew Brooklyn represented a chance to pick up one more championship. And late in games, Pierce will be whom the Nets lean on. Pierce scored a team-high six points in the fourth quarter on Friday, while battling James defensively every possession.
"The first thing I told these guys was that it's going to be a pleasure to watch [Pierce] every night," Garnett said. "I've always called him Picasso. He's like a beautiful painting."
Ultimately, an early November win means little. Afterwards, Pierce and Garnett were asked if they had made a statement, if they had sent a message to the Heat. Both understood that they had done neither. "When we came off a championship and certain teams beat us, we looked at it like 'It doesn't matter, we'll get them in the playoffs,'" Pierce said. "I don't know if we got [Miami's] attention or not."
No, there was no message, no statement. But at the very least Pierce and Garnett had shown the Nets that Miami was far from invincible. The Nets had lost 13 straight games to the Heat, a streak that ended on Friday night. LeBron and Miami were to be battled, not revered, bullied not backed down from. As Pierce walked through the Nets locker room and toward a back door, he muttered the same phrase to anyone within earshot.
"Way to set the tone," Pierce said. "Way to set the tone."